Media and culture have shifted since Anita Hill was shamed for telling the truth, yet today it's still far too hard for women to simply exist.
In 1991, when professor Anita Hill testified in painful detail about being sexually harassed by SCOTUS nominee Clarence Thomas, the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee wasn’t alone in their campaign to discredit and humiliate her. They had gleeful help from the men who overwhelmingly dominated the nation’s editorial boards, op-ed pages, White House press corps, front page reporting jobs, news anchor and pundit seats, and political radio shows, who were quick to pick up right-wing operative David Brock’s character assassination of Hill as “nutty and slutty.” Without feminist women — hell, without virtually any women — in positions of significant editorial power in America’s newsrooms or corporate media executive suites, coverage of the hearings was marked by male incredulity that sexual harassment existed at all, but also that it wasn’t a big deal and those whining feminazis should just take the compliment and stop trying to ruin men’s lives already. These gatekeepers controlled the national debate, contributing to a climate that made Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court seem inevitable.
Twenty-seven years later, much has changed in the media environment… and some crucial things haven’t. We still have a long way to go before we even approach statistical gender equity in newsrooms (and especially in media ownership and in top-level positions in media corporations, where women are still early invisible), but it is far easier in 2018 to find reporting and analysis of influential cis and trans women journalists in corporate and independent media, as well as via social media platforms that didn’t exist back then. And unlike the all-male Republican Judiciary Committee that fell over themselves to apologize to Brett Kavanaugh for the supposed pain and indignities he suffered (that sound you hear is me vomiting), many male journalists learned from history and now cover sexual harassment and assault stories with the seriousness they deserve. (Case in point: Ronan Farrow’s meticulously reported take-downs of Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, NY State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, among others.)
In this new climate, media covered Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and her personal credibility in a more even-handed, accurate, and humane way than the all-hands-on-deck frenzy of misogyny and racism leveled at Anita Hill. A great many op-eds, columns, front page print and lead stories, and investigative pieces in print and broadcast news outlets critically tackled the issue of sexual assault, making clear that Blasey Ford’s (and Deborah Ramirez’s) allegations shouldn’t be viewed through a partisan lens, shining a skeptical spotlight on Kavanaugh’s lies under oath and that means for the now-Supreme Court Justice’s own credibility gap.
Yet significant problems with media treatment of Kavanaugh, and of sexual assault in general, remain. FOX News predictably insisted that women lie about rape, and ran numerous stories explicitly and implicitly claiming that even if Kavanaugh had actually sexually assaulted girls and women in high school and college, it shouldn’t be disqualifying. The Wall Street Journal turned their op-ed page into a public relations platform for Kavanaugh’s rehabilitation before the vote, giving him an op-ed headlined “I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge” (subhead: “Yes, I was emotional last Thursday. I hope everyone can understand I was there as a son, husband and dad.”). Turning prime op-ed real estate over to a lying predator to help him lobby for his own SCOTUS appointment was a blatant ethical breech, even for a Rupert Murdoch-owned propaganda machine.
We also have the longer-term problem of journalistically irresponsible ‘follow the bouncing ball’ stories where the press allows the Pussygrabber-In-Chief to shape the narrative on his terms. The president successfully sucks the air out of the news cycle every time news outlets drop substantive coverage to rush out headlines about his latest offensive or nonsensical statement or tweet (like his rambling press conference about how women who come forward with sexual assault allegations are liars, or when he tells CBS’s Leslie Stahl that it’s fine that he mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, “It doesn’t matter, we won”). With each iteration of this “shiny new thing” spiral, serious reporting or debate about the administration’s corruption or discrimination gets pushed below the fold. Corporate media keeps letting themselves get played, over and over again.
This media hypocrisy is but one of many—MANY—reasons women are sitting with so much anger these days. To help us all understand rage, activism, and the significance of media narrative in this momentous time, I spoke with Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, and Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.
Jennifer L. Pozner: We’re seeing an uprising in women’s rage, a continuation of the anger animating women’s mobilizing since Election 2016. It’s deepening in response to this extreme and blatant backlash; to history regressing.
How do you feel about your own rage, and is there anything different about this moment?
Brittney Cooper: My rage is like an old friend, something I’m intimately familiar with. It is a reminder of being fully engaged in this political moment. At thirty-seven, there hasn’t been a political moment quite like this in my lifetime. As a historian, regression of civil rights and women’s rights is a hallmark of 19th-century women’s stories, not something I thought would be part of my own story. There is something distinct. It’s important to say that because there are folks who say, “Oh, things have always been terrible. The liberal project has always been trash.” I grew up in a distinctly different world than my grandmother, born in 1927, or my great-grandmother, born in 1903. I have had structurally-granted access to some places that they didn’t have. To be facing a world in which my grandchildren might be fighting battles our ancestors fought feels like a deep loss of control. So, yeah, rage needs to be my companion. It energizes the fight.
Soraya Chemaly: The anger we’re seeing now feels like a delayed cultural response. I feel like my anger has always been with me, and it’s also been hiding. I’ve often been very frustrated by complacency, by the almost protective sense people have that they don’t want to know because to know is too much. To be forced to do something. Now I see women angry almost despite themselves. They really can’t believe this is the situation they find themselves in. But the situation is not new for many people, right? Brittney talks about it, I talk about it, Rebecca Traister’s talking about it.
JLP: America’s original sins are genocide and slavery; our history and present are steeped in structural oppression. Can you speak to the differing reactions around rage, horror, and despair between white women and women of color? And, what’s your advice for how people should channel their anger into palpable action?
SC: I’ve been talking to people about not recreating the wheel. A lot of people I encounter, particularly white women with means, want to start something from scratch. I strongly urge them not to do that, but to look to the work of people who’ve been doing this for a very long time.
Second, explicitly seek out community. How do you interact with other people? How close are your networks? What does that mean?
Third, do what you do well. What are your strengths? Then, for white women in particular, do a lot more listening than talking.
BC: That’s all really good advice. I’m saying to Black women and women of color, ‘You’re not crazy.’ People have made us feel like our rage is so illegitimate, so outside, but now we’re in this moment where the fuckery we’ve all been experiencing is in stark relief. Giving one’s self permission to be angry, then having a healthy relationship to it so that it is not destructive but productive. That is what it is to live in a body of color: every day carrying rage and figuring out how not to let it consume you.
For white women, I join other Black women saying, ‘Welcome to the party. Welcome to the rage.’ Perhaps the hardest thing white women have to recognize is that their rage needs to be directed at people who look like them. Men and women in their families, in their community. People of color are not making all these terrible policies in the aggregate, so white folks need to be vehemently disgusted with people you might have some relationship to. That’s really hard. It means doing the psychic work of being a race traitor, and then to, as I keep saying, ‘Come get your people.’ And not backing off of them, because this shit is hard and uncomfortable and folks are recalcitrant.
JLP: I’d like us to talk a bit about how corporate media have been filtering news around gender and racial injustice since the 2016 election, and in particular, since Kavanaugh’s sexual assault allegations came out. I’ve been glad to finally see more space given to feminist (and even just women’s) reporting and analysis, and was heartened to see some mainstream-y outrage from newspaper editorial boards around Kavanaugh, which is a significant difference from the media landscape that aimed to destroy Anita Hill during and after Clarence Thomas’s hearings twenty-seven years ago. At the same time, conservative media—most explicitly though not exclusively FOX and the Wall Street Journal—have worked overtime to make high school sexual assault seem not criminal but universal. You have each to one degree or another challenged misogynist and racist media representations, Brittney through the Crunk Feminist Collective and Soraya through your writing and work with the Women’s Media Center. What have you thought about how this moment is being mediated? Do you think that in the aggregate, media are doing harm or providing benefit to the quest for justice for survivors?
SC: I’ll jump in here. I think that if we have media that is working in the favor of survivors, it is still most powerfully working outside of the mainstream institutions, right? Those institutions remain informed by the perspective of elite white men who pick the stories, frame the stories, pick the language, and decide what’s their preference. That is still largely true. It’s certainly true in terms of media ownership, senior management, and on the business side of media. It’s still true in editorial newsrooms of most of the large, dominant spaces that exist offline and on.
And there’s still this tendency to cling to the notion that elite white male perspectives represent cultural objectivity. Even in writing in the last few weeks, I’ve encountered editorial resistance to intersectional analyses. I’ve come to really be quite depressed by the fact that we’re having the most basic conversations in some cases, to push institutions to understand why not having this intersectional feminist lens is impeding their ability to understand problems. I just think that as bad as the internet is, it’s still revolutionary from the perspective of our being able to do an end-run against all those obstacles.
JLP: So true. That resistance, and that structural imbalance is why I founded Women In Media & News in 2001. And I’d also say that the notion of white male objectivity coupled with the resistance to intersectional feminist analysis you describe makes it not only difficult for news outlets to understand issues of the day, but to do their reporting and analysis jobs accurately and comprehensively.
BC: For me, the biggest challenge watching media is that there’s always the move to humanize and to try to understand the other side, to understand Trump voters, to understand Donald Trump. The media really caught on far too late that he was 1) a candidate to be taken seriously, and 2) he is an autocrat. White men shape media in a way that it is endlessly empathetic to all manner of white foolishness, and that is to the detriment of so many of the rest of us who don’t get the same level of coverage or empathy.
In that way, the problem of media mirrors the problem of solidarity with white people sometimes. White people can be good allies, but the one place they always get caught up is that they still see the humanity in the other side, and they always feel that if there’s an appeal to reason and shared humanity that will make people on the Right cooperate or act with some moral center. And maybe that is true in some political contexts, but it does not seem to be true in this political moment. Not in any broad scale and certainly not in a scale that matters for the politically vulnerable.
So, the media has to make up its mind about hardcore truth-telling. We also don’t know what to do with the problem of Fox News. What do you do in a world where you value freedom of speech, and you have an influential media outlet that is committed to baseless, violent, and harmful political propaganda that has brainwashed basically a whole segment, and been weaponized against another whole segment, of the American populace?
Those are among the big questions of the big questions of the twenty-first century. It’s one of the questions we’re going to have to solve so that folks have a base-level of political understanding that shapes their ability to understand facts, and what is real and what is not real. An inability to solve that problem is the most difficult aspects of our time. What do you do in a political reality where facts cease to matter? That is the challenge that I think media has to deal with. And how do you calibrate a citizenry to be able to take in facts and then come to a set of reasonable conclusions?
SC: You just reminded me of something, too, that I think is really important. Everything you just said is true globally, yet our media is really calibrated to our sense of nationalism. It is infused with American exceptionalism in a way that really creates dangerous blinders because other countries have been down this path before. Other countries could see what was happening in real time, and our media simply refused to believe it could happen here, in the same way that they refuse to believe what Black women have been saying, what brown women have been saying.
It’s a form of identity-protective cognition, right? You don’t see it, you don’t perceive the risk, and until those bubbles have burst, until they’re gone, we’re going to reproduce this problem. It’s as though every problem we have, we have to recreate the response wheel. We wouldn’t, though, if we actually considered how incredibly transnational these issues are, especially when we’re facing a global white supremacist backlash. It was very clear that Breibart leveraged a global network of white male supremacists.
JLP: Yeah, and at the most fundamental level we had so many journalistic failures throughout election coverage, with even the most basic lack of accuracy in descriptions of people like Steve Bannon. News outlets kept using words before the election like ‘controversial’ and ‘provocateur’ to describe Bannon. Not the more accurate ‘white nationalist,’ or ‘white supremacist,’ though that was simply a fact about the alignment of both Bannon and his media properties. Yet even when he became Trump’s campaign manager, the polite qualifiers attached didn’t match the man. With a few exceptions, corporate media painted him as a sort of bombastic right-wing media guy who likes to ruffle feathers. As if there was no difference between a Bannon and a Tucker Carlson (who is a hideous propagandist in his own right). But this lack of emphasis on defining terms, teams, and phenomena accurately obviously had disastrous ramifications.
Okay, now that we’ve talked about rage, activism, and media, I’d like to ask you one last question: What’s making you laugh right now? What’s giving you hope?
SC: Other women always make me laugh throughout the despair. Just their wit and their resilience. I’m grateful for other women. And for the men who get it (though not in an over-thankful way). Laughing and hopefulness go together.
BC: Seeing women owning their rage gives me great joy. I’m also excited to see the reemergence of the frontline feminist movement. I sensed it would come after the rise of the Movement for Black Lives because typically these go together. Reproductive justice organizers have put in the groundwork for decades to sustain the movement beyond this high visibility moment; that heartens me. Given what history teaches us about movements, I think it’s going to be hell—I don’t think everyone’s going to make it—but in the end, I do think we’ll be alright.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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